Social media as a B2B marketing tool

In recent times, we have heard a lot about social media gaining popularity among B2B marketers like never before. Does this mean sudden enlightenment – or could it be that it is only one side of the argument?

The online world is all abuzz with the phenomenal growth rates of Facebook and Twitter, the billions of minutes social media users are spending online and news about B2B companies’ surge in social media investment.

A skeptic by nature, I decided to look at the issue a little more closely. After all, I am a B2B copywriter and marketing communicator, so a major shift in marketing channels and media choice will have a direct impact on what I provide my clients with and how.

Social media on the rise?

It was almost too easy to be cynical about the social media marketing intentions so prominently touted. According to one article, 75% of marketers will embrace social media for new customer acquisition, customer retention and engagement in 2010. I don’t know the split between B2C and B2B in this survey, but judging by 51% focusing on SEO and 49% on e-mail campaigns it is easy to make the conclusion that the driver is more or less “online is cheap, let’s try it”. Digging deeper, many comments included “we will definitely be looking at social media” or similar vague terms. In other words, no strategy, no goals.

What actually is B2B?

Scouring the web for B2B success stories, I found several. But, and it’s a rather big but, the successes were mostly small-scale.

The B2B circles with so far unrecorded success stories are just the ones where I’m trying to make a difference: shipyards, paper mills, industrial valve manufacturers, data system vendors for banking applications, software developers and the like.

The Revelation

Then it hit me. The whole thing hinges on the decision-making process you’re selling to, blurring the distinction between B2C and B2B.

The micro-business vs. the large corporation

Selling office supplies to a web design agency of two, or paper cups to small catering firms is essentially pretty much similar to selling office supplies or paper cups to me. The market behaves in much the same way as the consumer market.

Large corporations, on the other hand, face issues such as supply security, regulations and strict ROI requirements. They have a multi-tiered decision-making structure, making it impossible for one person to affect the process. That’s why the “it’s people who buy” and “talk to the end customer and your customer will come to you” arguments only work in micro-business environments. For example, a printing company has precious little to contribute to the kind of condition monitoring system a paper mill buys, and it doesn’t matter how much the purchasing manager likes you if she has to submit all new supplier decisions through the accounting department to the board.

Can B2C point the way to B2B marketers?

Yes and no. If you’re in a single decision-maker business, yes. For large corporations, no. Even “customer engagement”, providing support or forging closer contacts with customers will not work in the case of corporations, because many of the issues cannot be discussed in public. Moreover, few corporate decision-makers and influencers hang out in social media.

If you’re selling big, stick to the traditional methods

At least for the present, I’m inclined to think the traditional “push” marketing methods, combined with one-to-one consultative sales work better. The whole selling/buying process and buying motives within the corporate sector are so different from the mom-and-pop store that it is almost impossible to draw parallels.

Comments

  1. Adam Needles - September 28, 2009 @ 20:17

    Hi, Kimmo. I was reading your blog post with interest.

    You make some good points, but I think that you dismiss the impact of social media on the buying process too easily.

    I recently did a blog post that rounds up sompe pretty conclusive evidence that social is having an increasing role in B2B, albeit not in the way you highlight. Instead, it is having a crucial impact upstream, shaping perspectives and buyer education, a well as enabling B2B buyers to garner peer/industry insights.

    I thought you’d appreciate checking out some of the data — as it proves that social media IS having an impact on B2B buyers, which means B2B marketers need to take it seriously:

    http://propellingbrands.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/nailing-down-evidence-that-the-nature-of-the-b2b-buyer-has-changed/

    Appreciate the dialogue here, and look forward to more of your posts!

    • Kimmo Linkama - September 28, 2009 @ 22:11

      Adam, thanks for taking the time to comment. I still have to view all the links you provided in your blog post, but I read the rest of the article with great interest.

      It’s exactly the contradiction between B2C and B2B data that has left me doubting how much of the social media “truths” really can be applied in a B2B environment. Ever since my Anderson & Lembke days in the late 80s, I’ve subscribed to their idea that in B2B, “the seller doesn’t sell, the buyer buys”. Social media is a wonderful means to this end, and as a vendor of services to the B2B marketer, it is my responsibility to recommend the best practices. Your facts go a long way in helping to extract the useful from the noise.

      I’ll be happy to continue the discussion!

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